by Nina Siegal
Inspired by Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Nina Siegal’s first novel takes place in a single day, and follows many characters through the streets of Amsterdam, culminating in the dissection of a condemned criminal that was captured on canvas by the famous Dutch master. As they prepare for the big event: we meet Aris the Kid, the criminal; Flora, his lover hoping to claim Aris’ body for a proper burial; the painter Rembrandt as he begins his first major commission; Rene Descartes, a French intellectual attending the dissection; Jan Fetchet, the man who acquired and prepared the corpse; and Dr. Tulp, nervous about his big presentation. Incongruent with the rest is Pia, a contemporary art historian restoring Rembrandt’s painting five hundred years after the rest of the novel’s events.
I found the inclusion of Pia extremely jarring and odd. Without her, the novel could simply exist as a simple historical fiction, attempting to get into the minds of the main actors as they set in motion the events that inspired one of Rembrandt’s best-known paintings. But the art conservator’s notes clutter up the book in a weak attempt to infuse some sort of unnecessary DaVinci Code-style mystery into the story.
The historical stories are more purposeful and interesting. I was really curious about Jan Fetchet, a seller of “curiosities”. He is not a particularly well-regarded man in Amsterdam, but his reputation for acquiring a vast array of goods means that everyone knows of him. I believe he’s a fictional creation of Nina Siegal, but his strange life seemed so interesting that I found myself wanting to learn more about Fetchet’s historical counterparts, if any account of them survives. As Fetchet moves about the town, 17th century Amsterdam comes to life and I can hear the noise of the city streets, the markets, the docks. The historical personalities were often enigmatic- I can’t say that I understand Rembrandt all that much more than I did before reading the book, nor do I think Descartes’ presence added much to the overall conversation.
Sometimes the connections between the fictional characters and historic ones seemed forced. It is revealed that Rembrandt knew the criminal Aris when he was a child. I can’t say it’s an impossible connection, but it didn’t seem to add much to the narrative so I don’t think it was necessary.
At times the novel seems slow-paced, and the jumps in perspective can sometimes make it hard to truly feel the emotions and connections of the characters. As an art historian, I thought this book would be right up my alley, but in the end The Anatomy Lesson was too plodding and did little to enhance my understanding of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.
3 out of 5 stars
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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: The Big Top Giveaway
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th
2011: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
2010: Discussion Question: E-Reading
2009: News: Digital Piracy Affects Books, Too